photos courtesy of Jay Alan Zimmerman

When the world goes quiet, some musicians can still find the rhythm

When Ludwig Van Beethoven lost his hearing, he cut off the legs of a piano so he could feel the vibrations when he played. When Jay Alan Zimmerman lost his hearing, he accidentally wrote a musical about it.

Zimmerman has always loved musical theatre. He was in multiple shows growing up. He moved from Iowa to New York  at the age of 19 to become a performer. Once there, he found a manager who put him into programs to study musical theater. He booked his first show while living in a YMCA. He started working with great Broadway writers. Things were looking promising for Zimmerman’s future.

Then, his world went silent.

Zimmerman began losing his hearing around 21. He couldn’t hear the higher keys on the piano, but at the time he could ignore the problem because he heard the rest of the piano just fine. A few years later, Zimmerman stopped hearing his wife’s voice. That was how he learned he was going deaf. With the diagnosis, he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to continue pursuing a music career — something he’d been working toward his whole life.

“When I became profoundly deaf, my understanding of what music is and my understanding of what deaf is didn’t seem compatible at all,” Zimmerman says. “I thought basically that my life was over.”

Behind the Sound

In the United States alone, roughly 20 percent of people have some form of hearing loss. Sometimes it’s mild, where people may have difficulty hearing in noisy situations. But for others, like Zimmerman, it’s profound, where they have to rely on other forms of communication, such as ASL (American Sign Language) or various devices to enhance their hearing.

Sound starts as vibrations — a car’s engine, someone speaking or a piano’s strings. Those vibrations travel through the air and into the ear. There, they vibrate the eardrum, which stimulates the three inner ear bones, converting the vibrations into mechanical energy. The sound is then transferred into the fluid of the inner ear where the cochlea and hair cells turn it into electrical energy, which is then taken to the brain.

For someone with hearing loss, there’s a problem with one of those stages. A single problem can cause the rest of the system to fail. Those problems can be caused by myriad reasons: a virus or disease, genetics, aging or too much Metallica. These can lead to different forms of hearing loss or complete deafness.

“Deafness I would refer to as having little to no useful hearing for hearing and understanding speech, language and music,” says Karen McQuaide, a doctor of audiology based in New Jersey.

There are two main types of hearing loss — conductive and sensorineural. Conductive hearing loss deals with issues in the outer or middle ear and can usually be fixed. Sensorineural refers to damage of the inner ear and has no cure. Zimmerman falls into the latter category, and likely won’t ever be able to hear the way he used to.

At first it would appear as if a person with an incurable hearing loss would have no interest in music. Deafness is, after all, lacking the ability to hear sound. But certain people with hearing loss can still perceive some music — even if it’s just the lower tones. Even if someone has little to no residual hearing, the vibrations the music makes can still be enough to enjoy.

Regardless, for deaf individuals, the way their brain perceives musical vibrations is comparable to how a hearing person perceives sound. Research by the University of Washington found that vibrations stimulate the auditory cortex in ways it wouldn’t in a hearing person. These bass-thumping vibrations might be some of the only auditory input perceived, but it becomes “sound” for deaf individuals. Similarly, the auditory cortex is also stimulated when a deaf person views sign language.

Music Through Imagination

Zimmerman tried to keep his hearing loss quiet.

“At that point, I was not talking about my deafness,” Zimmerman says of when he was first diagnosed. “I was trying to hide it.”

During that tumultuous time, Zimmerman began gradually experimenting with music again. He started with just making sounds and rhythms, which turned into a rap, which bred more songs. He was also still exploring his feelings about deafness and decided to put everything together into a musical. The end result was “The Incredibly Deaf Musical,” which tells the story of how Zimmerman lost his hearing and found a way to continue with music.

“It’s leaping off a cliff, and this whole time you’re trusting that you’re doing it right, but there’s no way to know for sure.”

silent music jay alam zimmermanBecause he had musical training before losing his hearing, Zimmerman has an auditory memory. He’s able to read a score and “hear” the music playing in his head. It’s part auditory, part imagination.

“If you have auditory memory, other things in life, like vibrations or visual input, can trigger those musical memories,” Zimmerman says. “If you have any kind of auditory input, which I do have for lower frequencies, you can use that for a trigger.”

Despite these triggers, Zimmerman is unable to experience one key part of making music — confirmation. He has no way of knowing whether the sounds he intends to create are the sounds an audience hears.

“It’s sort of like a daredevil,” Zimmerman says. “It’s leaping off a cliff, and this whole time you’re trusting that you’re doing it right, but there’s no way to know for sure.”

Zimmerman can get some confirmation through tuners and frequency analysis, but he can never hear what he’s created the same way he could when he was hearing. As a result, Zimmerman has to get creative when it comes to making music.

“It’s given me a new way of looking at music, and now I can work more visually. I think it allows me to enjoy things maybe I would not necessarily enjoy if I was hearing them,” Zimmerman says. “I think what’s rewarding is that it’s really opened up a world and a way of thinking that I never had.”

silent music jay alan zimmerman

A Culture of its Own

There’s a distinction between audiological deafness — physically not being able to hear — and cultural deafness. With a lowercase “d,” deaf refers to someone who has a medical diagnosis of deafness or someone who does not typically associate with other Deaf people. With a capital “D,” Deaf describes a person who has roots in the culture and community among Deaf people. They may choose ASL as their primary form of communication and interact mostly with other Deaf individuals.

“Deaf culture has a sense of community and affiliation that primarily rose out of sharing a common language and a common experience, which, in the larger hearing world, is a very unique experience,” says Joe Fischgrund, who’s been a deaf educator for over 20 years.

Whether deaf or Deaf, it’s up to individuals to decide for himself or herself. For example, Wendy Cheng is audiologically deaf but considers herself hard of hearing because of her ability to function in a hearing world with cochlear implants. If someone were to have a conversation with Cheng on the street, it’s likely they would never know she’s profoundly deaf.

Cheng grew up loving music, despite being diagnosed as profoundly deaf when she was 9 years old. Cheng is the president and founder of the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss (AAMHL). She created AAMHL after she noticed that the hearing community didn’t seem to think music was important for deaf or hard-of-hearing people. She wanted to break that stigma while inspiring deaf people to pursue music.

“The idea is to make aural music more accessible to someone who has a significant hearing loss,” Cheng says. “That’s something most people don’t think is possible. But I know it can be done, because I live the life of somebody who loves music so, so much.”

One of the biggest things AAMHL does is host their bi-annual conference, “a music festival for people with hearing loss,” as Cheng describes it. The event takes place over four days where musicians with hearing loss can come to build friendships, learn about music and attend presentations from experts. Another big part of the weekend is the opportunity to create music together. This unique atmosphere allows attendees to meet like-minded musicians who face similar obstacles.

“…that shared life experience and that shared language, to me, has always been the fundamental core of the Deaf community”

But like any community, hearing or not, everyone differs. Music isn’t appreciated or necessary for all people with a hearing loss, just as it isn’t with all hearing people. Even among deaf individuals, there are discrepancies on what counts as music. Some don’t see signed rap as music, and some find it offensive for someone to create videos of popular songs in ASL.

Despite their various forms of identification or appreciation of music, all deaf and hard-of-hearing people share one thing in common: the inability to hear at some level. This is the core of Deaf culture.

“Their life experience is different. But that shared life experience and that shared language, to me, has always been the fundamental core of the Deaf community,” Fischgrund says.

Another core of the Deaf community is their views on hearing loss. Most Deaf people don’t want to hear. Their deafness isn’t seen as a disability in need of a cure. Many of those who are deaf will say, ‘There are no walks to cure deafness because the majority of Deaf people feel fine just the way they are.’

“I would have it no other way,” says Cheng.  “It just feels like… this is me. You take it or leave it.”

Welcome Challenges

With “The Incredibly Deaf Musical” complete, Zimmerman is setting his sights on new projects. He’s currently working on another musical called “Roboticus.” It centers on a young man who tries to make himself perfect by upgrading different body parts with robot limbs until he’s a complete robot.

“And that’s just Act One,” Zimmerman says.

As one of the only deaf composers in New York, Zimmerman certainly stands out; he’s glad for it. People come to him wanting his perspective, and he’s passionate about bringing music to deaf communities. His deafness also makes creating shows all the more difficult. To him, it’s all worth it. Despite the challenges he faces in the music world, Zimmerman is constantly working on new projects and trying to become better at what he does.

“It’s exhausting and difficult to keep doing, but I just have to,” Zimmerman says. “I can’t stop. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting.”

silent music jay alan zimmerman